Suzanne Vos vs The Sunday Independent

Compliant: Suzanne Vos

Lodged by: Suzanne Vos

Article: IFP is instrument of terror – Inkatha Freedom Party has no heroes of the liberation struggle.

Author of article: Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana

Date: 8 July 2011

Respondent: Sunday Independent

Complaint

Ms Suzanne Vos, in her personal capacity, complains about an opinion piece in The Sunday Independent, published on April 17, 2011 and headlined IFP is instrument of terror – Inkatha Freedom Party has no heroes of the liberation struggle.

She complains that the:
• article is by association defamatory of her reputation because the IFP is called an “instrument of terror”; and
• headline is unsubstantiated.

Analysis

The writer of this opinion piece is Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana, amongst other designations a researcher with the Human Sciences Research Council. On April 13, he delivered a speech at the invitation of Freedom Park where he addressed the question if members of the IFP were worthy of inscription into the Wall of Remembrance. The opinion piece is an abridged version of his speech.

Ndletyana’s argues that members of the IFP are not heroes of the liberation struggle – he says they were rather instruments of terror as they participated, by using Bantustans, in apartheid oppression.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

‘Instrument of terror’ defamatory

Ndletyana expressed the view that the IFP participated in the apartheid system and that it should therefore be seen as an instrument of terror.

Vos says that this statement defames her character and reputation as it implies that during her decades of service within the ranks of the IFP leadership (she says she served on its Central Committee and then on its National Council for more than two decades) she was party to being an instrument of terror.

She adds that the implication that she was complicit in apartheid oppression is blatantly untrue.

Vos argues that she has never, covertly or overtly, been a party to acts of criminality and that she has never participated in any IFP meeting where proposed acts of violence were promoted. On the contrary, she says that:
• she rather assisted victims of violence;
• far from being an “instrument of terror” she can say that she herself was often terrified in certain circumstances;
• her response to the carnage was to get involved in as many initiatives as she could (representing the IFP) to stop the violence and to bring an end to the apartheid regime; and
• nobody could have been happier than she was when South Africa finally achieved democracy in 1994.

She concludes that this opinion piece did the cause of non-violence throughout South Africa great harm.

The Sunday Independent replies that there are many views on what the IFP is. It says: “Indeed, the IFP regarded itself as a liberation movement and was supported by some liberal scholars who thought that the ‘moderate’ IFP was preferable to the ‘terrorist liberation movement’.”

However, the newspaper also says that any sober and decent scholarly analysis has reached the same conclusion: that the IFP’s participation in the Bantustan system and the use by security forces in perpetuating violence made it an accomplice in apartheid oppression and therefore turned it into an instrument of terror.

It argues that the Bantustan system was essentially a divide-and-rule strategy that colonial/apartheid governments have historically relied upon; the system also employed violence, “using proxies such as the IFP”, to kill its opponents.

The Sunday Independent adds that it is incorrect and misleading to interpret the opinion piece as a reflection on Vos or on any other individual within the IFP leadership – it says it it is wrong to arrogate any characteristics of the organization to its individual members when there was no such claim in the article in the first place. The editor writes: “…it is (therefore) possible for the IFP to be an instrument of terror without her (Vos) having participated in this”. The newspaper reiterates: “No one has said she has been a party to (an) act of criminality. She fails to understand that in the bigger scheme of things, she hardly matters. It is cold to say, but it is the truth.”

The editor says that he is touched by the contribution to peace that Vos has made and that the article clearly offended her. However, “that is hardly sufficient enough a basis for any complaint”.

I can fully understand Vos’s indignation, given her input over more than two decades as described above. I accept that she wanted apartheid to end, that she pursued peace and that she never participated in any criminal or violent activity herself – and that her view of the IFP drastically differs from that of Ndletyana.

However, Ndletyana expressed a view that is not uncommon (namely that the IFP participated in the apartheid system and is therefore co-responsible for the terror of the apartheid regime) – a view that he is entitled to hold and to express.

Likewise, the newspaper was within its rights to publish that view.

The Sunday Independent is also correct in distinguishing between an individual and an organization. If, from a certain perspective, the IFP is described as an instrument of terror, it does not necessarily follow that each and every individual member or leader is guilty of terrorism. It is the system that is the issue here, not any individual.

Besides, I do not believe that the publication of this opinion piece amounts to hate speech. Section 16.2 of the country’s Constitution prohibits speech if it extends to “propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. Surely, this article does not qualify for any of those specifications. Also, note that this opinion is not about the present IFP, as it interprets this political party in light of the pre-democracy era – which ended 17 years ago.

Unsubstantiated headline

The headline reads: IPF is instrument of terror.

Vos complains that the headline is unsubstantiated.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Firstly, the Press Code states that headlines shall give a reasonable reflection of the content of the article. While the article’s main theme is the view that the names of members of the IFP should not be inscripted on the Wall of Remembrance, the main reason for this view is that the IFP participated in the apartheid system. The expression “instrument of terror” is close enough to the heart of the article to qualify for the headline – and therefore it is not unsubstantiated.

Note that this decision refers to the expression “instrument of terror” only.

Also: The headline states somebody’s view as a fact. However, the opinion piece was published on an opinion page and the headline should therefore be interpreted as such – as comment. On a news page, this headline would have been unacceptable, except if quotation marks were used.

However, there is a problem with the use of the verb “is” in the headline. The article is about the liberation struggle and the IFP’s participation in the apartheid system – a period which ended in 1994. Ndletyana’s views were about the period ending in that year; there is no indication that he accuses the present IFP of being an instrument of terror.

The headline, therefore, does not represent Ndletyana’s views, as he did not express any such views regarding the present day IFP. As already mentioned, the Code is clear about this.

If the headline read IFP was instrument of terror, there would have been no problem.

I am not going to ascribe this mistake to malice; nevertheless, it is something that needs to be corrected.

I also have to say that the use of the present tense in the headline may have caused unnecessary harm.

Finding

‘Instrument of terror’ defamatory

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Unsubstantiated headline

The complaint with reference to the words “instrument of terror” is dismissed.

The use of the verb “is” is not a fair reflection of the article. This is in breach of Art. 5.1 that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question”.

Sanction

The Sunday Independent is cautioned to be more careful when it comes to the writing of headlines and directed to publish a correction.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:

Ms Suzanne Vos, previously in leading positions in the Inkatha Freedom Party, lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about an opinion piece in The Sunday Independent, published on April 17, 2011 and headlined IFP is instrument of terror – Inkatha Freedom Party has no heroes of the liberation struggle.

She complained that the article was by association defamatory of her reputation, and that the headline was unsubstantiated.

The article, written by Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana, was an abridged version of his speech at the invitation of Freedom Park where he addressed the question if members of the IFP were worthy of inscription into the Wall of Remembrance.

Ndletyana’s argued that members of the IFP were not heroes of the liberation struggle – he said they were rather instruments of terror as they participated, by using Bantustans, in apartheid oppression.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that the use of the word “is” in the headline misrepresented Ndletyana’s views as expressed in the article, as the piece was an interpretation of the nature of the IFP before liberation and not of the present day IFP. This is in breach of Art. 5.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

He cautioned us, but added that he did not believe that this mistake was malicious. He asked us to be more careful when it comes to the writing of headlines and directed us to correct the headline.

However, he found that the use of the words “instrument of terror” in the headline was acceptable, as it correctly reflected the content of the article. The fact that the piece was published on an opinion page also allowed us to state the writer’s view as a fact. He said, “the opinion piece was published on an opinion page and the headline should therefore be interpreted as such – as comment. On a news page, this headline would have been unacceptable, except if quotation marks were used.”

Retief also dismissed the main part of the complaint. He said that Ndletyana expressed a view that is not uncommon – a view that he was entitled to hold and to express.

Likewise, we were within our rights to publish that view.

He also found that we were correct in distinguishing between an individual and an organization – the view that the IFP was an instrument of terror did not necessarily translate to every individual in that organization.

He said that the publication of the opinion piece did not amount to hate speech.

Visit presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.

• We correct the headline, which should have read: IFP was instrument of terror.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman